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By Dr. Michela Coletta

In the early nineteenth century, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote: ‘We do have information concerning America and its culture, especially as it had developed in Mexico and Peru, but only to the effect that it was a purely natural culture which had to perish as soon as the spirit approached it. America has always shown itself physically and spiritually impotent, and it does so to this day.’

Hegel’s philosophy of history was built upon long-standing ideas about the inferiority of the New World and its uncultivated physical and human landscape. What has been the effect of these ideas on the ways in which Latin America has been imagined and represented? How have these representations in turn contributed to shaping economic, social and political issues concerning, for instance, ethnicity, natural resources, ecological knowledges, and, ultimately, notions of modernisation?

Rupert Medd Pastores Cuzquenos

Rupert Medd, “Pastores cuzqueños“, 2010

The SLAS 50th Anniversary Conference (Birkbeck College, London, 3-4 April 2014), also supported by the Institute of Latin American Studies, offers a unique platform for debating some of these themes in a multidisciplinary environment.

As ILAS Visiting Stipendiary Fellow, I will be co-convening a panel on ‘The Politics of Nature in Latin America‘. The papers on this panel will address these questions from various disciplines, including history, literature, anthropology. The panel will also offer a broad geographical focus (the Andean region, the River Plate, Brazil, Central America). The aim is twofold:

1) propose new questions and theoretical approaches in order to revisit existing categories;

2) discuss original works and debates from within Latin America which can be illuminating in relation to current compelling issues such as the exploitation of natural resources, localism versus globalism, ethnicity and national identity, animal/human relations.

A two-session panel to reflect different geographical and thematic areas

The first session opens with two papers that introduce some the philosophical bases of the paradigm of the savagery of the American continent (Cadelo-Buitrago) and the ways in which some of these notions were challenged during the twentieth century (Coletta). In the early twentieth century, archaeology and literature were also means to access indigenous knowledges and to counter existing practices about the use of environmental resources in the Andean regions (Medd and Wylie).

In the second session, Central America offers original case studies about food growth methodologies by building a parallel with Humboldt’s critique of colonial resource extraction (Millner), and about the connections between natural history and racial theories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Lara).

amazon river

Finally, the last two papers focus on Brazil: one deals with the recovery of the sublime qualities of nature as a response to the rhetoric of modernisation (Lima de Sousa) while the last paper analyses current debates about animal rights (Gaspar).

The thematic variety of these contributions shows the potential scope of the topic. The aim of this panel is to further enhance discussion around the notion of nature and its foundational role in the politics of identity in Latin America.